Mark Cavendish of HTC Columbia won his fourth stage of this year's Tour de France in Bordeaux this afternoon, taking a closely fought bunch sprint from Julian Dean of Garmin Transitions and Lampre-Farnese Vini's Alessandro Petacchi.
With Thor Hushovd of Cervelo TestTeam once again off the pace in the finale, Petacchi now leads the Norwegian by 10 points in the race for the green jersey, and Cavendish is only six points further back in third place.
Coming into the final three kilometres of today's 198km stage form Salies de Bearn, Team Sky had come to the front of the peloton as they looked to set up Edvald Boasson Hagen to set up their first stage win in this, their debut Tour de France, but it wasn't to be, and the young Norwegian finished sixth behind Katusha's Robbie McEwen and Rabobank's Oscar Freire.
After the exertions of the last four stages in the Pyrenees, the riders today appeared visibly relaxed, Cavendish even caught by the TV cameras jokingly pretending to crack the whip as his HTC-Columbia colleagues and Lampre-Farnese Vini headed the peloton as it rolled towards Bordeaux.
With a sprint finish on the cards on the Quai Louis XVIII, those two teams forced the pace to keep in check a four-man breakaway comprising Matti Breschel of Team Saxo Bank, Daniel Oss from Liquigas, Française des Jeux’s Benoit Vaugrenard, Quick Step's Jerome Pineau, and Matti Breschel of Team Saxo Bank, and the latter three were swept up with 13km to go.
Oss bravely tried to solo his way to a win but the 24-year-old Italian was himself caught taround 3.5km from home, and although Milram's Linus Gerdemann also tried to get away on his own, he too was swiftly brought back into the bunch.
By that time, however, the quartet had already snapped up the intermediate sprint points on offer, meaning that Hushovd is now at huge disadvantage to Petacchi on Sunday’s final stage into Paris, with his hopes of retaining the green jersey resting on him picking up points on two intermediate sprints, both on the Champs-Elysées, and finishing ahead of the Italian.
Cavendish can still win the points competition too, but in order to do so he would have to finish well ahead of Petacchi, and so far the Italian has proved to be very competitive in the sprint, picking up two stage wins himself, making him the favourite now to take the green jersey on Sunday.
While yesterday’s stage up to the Tourmalet was watched from race director Christian Proudhomme’s car by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, today’s action was witnessed from the same vantage point by Hollywood royalty in the shape of Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise.
The latter could perhaps give Andy Schleck some tips on how to carry out what looks certain to be a mission impossible in tomorrow’s 52km individual time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac in which the Luxembourg rider will make a final – and in all probability, futile – attempt to overturn race leader Alberto Contador’s 8-second advantage.
Schleck had other things to occupy his mind today, however, dropping back to the race doctor’s car for a brief consultation then angrily swatting away the ever-watchful TV motorbike crew as it became apparent that it was saddle sores that were causing him discomfort.
Stage 18 Result
CAVENDISH Mark TEAM HTC-COLUMBIA 4h 37' 09"
DEAN Julian GARMIN-TRANSITIONS All same time
PETACCHI Alessandro LAMPRE-FARNESE
MC EWEN Robbie KATUSHA TEAM
FREIRE Oscar RABOBANK
HAGEN Edvald Boasson SKY PRO CYCLING
ROELANDTS Jürgen OMEGA PHARMA-LOTTO
ROJAS Jose Joaquin CAISSE D’EPARGNE
BOLE Grega LAMPRE-FARNESE
PEREZ Ruben EUSKALTEL-EUSKADI
TURGOT Sébastien BBOX BOUYGUES TELECOM
ROUX Anthony FDJ
MONDORY Lloyd AG2R LA MONDIALE
HUSHOVD Thor CERVELO TEST TEAM
BALLAN Alessandro BMC RACING TEAM
ARASHIRO Yukiya BBOX BOUYGUES TELECOM
MAASKANT Martijn GARMIN-TRANSITIONS
ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE
KUCHYNSKI Aleksandr LIQUIGAS-DOIMO
PEREZ LEZAUN Alan EUSKALTEL-EUSKADI
Overall Standings after Stage 18
CONTADOR Alberto ASTANA 88h 09' 48"
SCHLECK Andy TEAM SAXO BANK + 00' 08"
SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL-EUSKADI + 03' 32"
MENCHOV Denis RABOBANK + 03' 53"
VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen OMEGA PHARMA-LOTTO + 05' 27"
GESINK Robert RABOBANK + 06' 41"
RODRIGUEZ Joaquin KATUSHA TEAM + 07' 03"
HESJEDAL Ryder GARMIN-TRANSITIONS + 09' 18"
KREUZIGER Roman LIQUIGAS-DOIMO + 10' 12"
HORNER Christopher TEAM RADIOSHACK + 10' 37"
SANCHEZ Luis-Leon CAISSE D’EPARGNE + 12' 46"
PLAZA Ruben CAISSE D’EPARGNE + 13' 01"
LEIPHEIMER Levi TEAM RADIOSHACK + 14' 24"
KLÖDEN Andréas TEAM RADIOSHACK + 14' 44"
ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE + 16' 00"
VINOKOUROV Alexandre ASTANA + 17' 57"
GADRET John AG2R LA MONDIALE + 17' 59"
LÖVKVIST Thomas SKY PRO CYCLING + 18' 30"
DE WEERT Kevin QUICK STEP + 20' 03"
MORENO Daniel OMEGA PHARMA-LOTTO + 25' 23"
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.